Currency issues

Without getting into the ongoing debate of Britain’s relationship with Europe, I was intrigued to read on 24 April 1919 of a suggestion to introduce “an international note of currency”. Its purpose would be “to supply the credit which will pay for food, raw materials – not to speak of reparations! Two birds with one stone.” 

The one bird being finance, the other linking people/countries together as a means to maintain peace. (Smuts papers iv, p127). This tied in with the idea behind the League of Nations, the single currency idea being put forward by Keynes and backed by Smuts.

So often, we see rates of pay, income, salaries and costs stated without any context. This is fine when working in a single currency at a particular time, but it can cause problems working cross-culturally and over time.

Over the years I’ve been researching the First World War in Africa, I’ve come to realise that there were different currencies in operation in the same East African theatre: the Indian rupee in the north as it was the main currency in British East Africa (Kenya) and the shilling in the south, as used in Nyasaland (Malawi) and Northern Rhodesia (Zambia). The Germans had their own currency too. What is therefore helpful in books mentioning rates of pay etc, is the comparative such as Sana Aiyar notes in Indians in Kenya. In the 1920s when the currency was changed from the rupee to the East African shilling, the income level of black Africans effectively reduced by 33%. The rate of pay was not changed but the cost of living increased based on the exchange rate of the new currency.

In 1915, the hut tax in BEA was 3 rupees 5, increased in 1920 to no more than 10 rupees each.  At that time, the rupee exchanged at R1,500 to £100, ie 1 rupee 4 was the equivalent of 1 shilling. With the new currency, the exchange dropped to R1,000 to £100 (pp86-90, Indians in Kenya). In Chiwaya War Voices, covering the experiences of Nyasalanders in the war, hut tax was between 2.5s and 6s.

Some years ago, I came across this little site ( which measures the purchasing power of the British pound since 1270. It’s quite sobering. Taking 3s as the most commonly quoted hut tax charge in war-time Nyasaland, today it would be the equivalent of £12.29 or £108.20 depending on what you take into consideration. So, if we take the BEA hut tax as equating to 4 shillings, this equated to £16.39 or £144.20. What we need to know for both, however, is what their respective earnings were. The Nyasalander soldier was paid £1 1s 4d = £87.42 or £769.40. One assumes this was per month.

Concerning West African currency during the war years, Bamidele Aly explores the monetary policy and introduction of bank notes in Southern Nigeria in 1916 in There Came a Time.

If nothing else, a single currency would make historians’ lives easier when it comes to comparing standards of living and other such factors.

Novelist – CS Forester

Forester’s most well-known World War One story is The African Queen, the film rather than the book. I’ve written on this before, there being numerous versions of the story with the book having more on the actual campaign than the film. His only book on World War 1 Africa is The African Queen inspired by a poster he saw in a London tube station after his agent pressured him to write something again. The events he writes about in the book happened when he was 16 years old.

The film released in 1964 has its own story to tell. Katherine Hepburn wrote of her experiences of the filming in The Making of the African Queen or How I went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost my Mind (and I see there’s a Youtube version too). And in case you weren’t aware there is another book and film of the time leading up to the making of The African Queen. This by Peter Viertel who tidied up the script of the film and tried to keep Huston on the straight and narrow. His account in both film and book are under the title White Hunter, Black Heart. Interestingly, in neither Hepburn nor Viertel’s account does CS Forester feature.

1899 – Born, 27 August in Cairo, Egypt
1921 – starts writing, using pen name of Cecil Scott Forester rather than his birth name Cecil Louis Troughton Smith
1924 – First novel published A pawn among kings
1926 – married
1935 – Published The African Queen
1945 – divorced
1947 – married
1951 – Film The African Queen released
1966 – Died, 2 April in California

Books on World War 1

The African Queen (1935)


The CS Forester Society
Wikipedia – for a clear layout of publications and dates

Africans in Europe during the 14-18 war

That colonial forces of all colours served, to various degrees, in Europe during World War 1 is fairly well known. The French Tirailleurs, the white South Africans and SANLC on the Western Front. What is less well-known are accounts of black and Arab Africans who found themselves in Europe and Britain on the outbreak of war.

Four from British territories served in the armed forces – two from West Africa, one Zambian (Samson Jackson) and one Malawian (Frederick Njilima). There may well be others who still need to be identified. And also in the other European territories.

So it was with some intrigue that I approached Mtoro bin Mwinyi Bakari: Swahili Lecturer and Author in Germany by Ludger Wimmelbücker published in 2008. Ludger gives an overview of Mtora’s time in Germany, also mentioning two other East Africans: Mdachi bin Sharifu and Halidi bin Kirama. While Mtora refrained from political involvement, the other two did not. It also appears that the latter two were employed by the German colonial office during the war while Mtora had to fend for himself, especially after being returned from East Africa after eight days in 1914.

We discover more Africans in Europe in the prisoner of war records as Annette Hoffman explained in 2017. They came to be there for a variety of reasons. Some were serving in merchant ships which were captured, such as Ntwanambi who was taken prisoner in October 1915 when the ship he was serving on as a boilermaker was captured. Others were taken prisoner whilst working on the war front as hinted at in the article. Sadly, these records were destroyed years ago, and as one commentator points out, we are reliant on the information coming to light in other recorded forms such as diaries, and non-military records.

The records from the Half Moon Camp in Wunsdorf, where many recordings were done are proving a valuable source on this front, but only where the information has been accessed, translated, interpreted and presented in (academic) publications by researchers with specific music or other specialised interests.

Review: Army of Empire – George Morton-Jack

My reading of Army of Empire: The untold story of the Indian Army in World War 1 (2018) by George Morton-Jack was a long time coming. Through some miscommunication I had been led to believe Africa did not feature which seemed rather odd. So, after some investigating, and confirmation that it did, I tracked down a copy and had a good read.

While the full extent of Indian service in East Africa is not covered in Army of Empire, due mainly to the availability of correspondence from and about the theatre, it is a valuable contribution for understanding the social and cultural aspects of the Indian Army and how those who served in both Europe and East Africa experienced and compared the theatres. My one issue with the sections on East Africa, is the reliance on Meinertzhagen’s memoirs and his being the ‘only’ intelligence agent. In fairness to George, many of us, myself included, have made this assumption. In Henry Tyndall’s 11 page diary coverage of the campaign in East Africa from 1916-1918 with the Mussoorie Volunteer Rifles (High Noon of Empire, transcribed by BA James, 2007), there is mention of Intelligence officer Lieutenant Percival and Intelligence Agent Burkitt who worked with his force around Kasinga. (Apart from the usual military coverage, the other point of note by Tyndall is the return of Naick Sanam Gul, with a broken leg, ‘by the enemy under a flag of truce’.)

Back to George’s book, I was able to obtain some answers to questions which have been lurking from when I was working on my thesis 20 years ago. However, some questions remain as British internal politics in India is not the focus of Army of Empire. What was also remarkable on this front, was how little Kitchener featured. Haig was George’s starting point and while there was much I could see carry through from the bit I encountered when writing Kitchener: The man not the myth, it was surprising to register how much had been ignored that K had been involved in. This is not a short-fall in Army of Empire as that was not its focus. What it does, for me, is confirm the antagonisms between personalities and sadly how that impacted on the Indian Army’s preparedness and treatment in the war and especially in Iraq.

Don’t expect to read about troop movements and encounters in this book. There are enough others covering that ground. Review: For the Honour of My House – Tony McClenaghan; Review: Sideshows of the Indian Army in World War 1 – Harry Fecitt; Review: Honour & Fidelity – Amarinder Singh

Army of Empire is the book to fill in the gaps around experience, motivations and desires.

Hidden women

The extent to which women have been left out of history is a topic of great discussion, and not one I engage with. As far as I can tell, if women desired something they set out to achieve it, including publicising what they did. When it comes to African women and women from Africa, I’m regularly in awe of what pops up.

Most recently, having written on Natal in the First World War, I was looking up something on Cherry Kearton, who served in the East Africa campaign, only to have his wife’s place of birth stand out – Ada Forrest was born in Congella, Durban, on 17 July 1877. As she’s known most popularly as Ada Kearton, I was surprised to discover she had only married Cherry after the war so technically doesn’t fit into my WW1 focus except that it’s due to her diligence that we have additional information on what Cherry got up to. During the war, Ada was in London. She had made her debut as a classical soprano singer back in 1907 and performed at the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts – that is The Proms – between 1909 and 1915. She retired from performing in 1922 when she married Cherry as she used to join him in the field and on safaris. More significant about Ada is that in 1908 she recorded her first album in London on which she sang in Afrikaans – one of the first South Africans to do so.

In 1908, another South African woman was to record an album in London, also in Afrikaans. She was Annie Visser born 8 August 1876 in Jagersfontein, Orange Free State (the place where the first SA diamond was identified). While Ada remained in London visiting South Africa on occasion, Annie returned to South Africa where the outbreak of war resulted in her career stalling. It is said this was due to her art form not being very popular, but it could also have been her politics. Annie is reported as having opened the first National Party Congress in 1915 in Bloemfontein.

And this article by Schalk van der Merwe has mention of another woman or two around the same time.

In related WW1 research, Luise White has a fascinating study on prostitution in Nairobi in a book called The comforts of home. Luise’s findings, based on interviews with women and men involved in the profession, align with the perceptions I have gleaned of empowered women through my own unrelated research. And for a fictional underpinning of how it all came to be… I can only turn to Doris Lessing‘s The Cleft (and more).